The Significance of Women's Subjective Experience

(Short Stories for Students)

When Mrs. Hale says to Mrs. Peters, "We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?" she was talking about a shared female subjectivity.

A good way to understand subjectivity is to imagine that all people are subjects. As subjects of their particular environments, their identities are constructed by the times, geography, gender, age. and any number of things that make them who they are. People's actions, thoughts, and feelings are informed by all these circumstances. This individual perspective is the person's subjectivity. This subjectivity is the root of an individual's episte-mology, or the way they know what they know.

Objectivity would be the opposite of this. An objective perspective or way of thinking relies on a person's ability to put aside his or her own subjective experience and view a situation from a standard or formulaic point of view. This point of view is removed from what the person thinks for him or herself and is based on a general set of assumptions.

People share a certain subjective viewpoint if they have enough common experiences. Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Minnie Wright all share a certain female subjectivity as wives of farmers. They live in the same town and have very similar lives, therefore knowing themselves is similar to knowing one another. It is this shared understanding of their lives that allows Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to reconstruct a picture of what Minnie's life migh! have been like. It is a lack of this subjective approach that keeps their husbands unaware of the circumstances of the crime. The men's objective approach to the crime is informed not by their own ideas of what might have happened, but by a set of assumptions of what most people agree constitutes a crime.

While looking for a certain set of clues like forced entry, a murder weapon, and signs of intruders around the barn, they are not open to other interpretations of the crime, interpretations that perhaps only a woman who shared Minnie's experiences might see. When the men disregard the women's attention to the kitchen, they are favoring an objective approach. Upon briefly surveying the kitchen, the sheriff decides to move the investigation upstairs. His cynical assessment of the scene is, "Nothing here but kitchen things."—"Nothing," as the county attorney suggests ''that would point to any motive." In fact, the men openly doubt the women's ability to read a crime with their subjective experience. The assumption that the women are prone to do so places them under suspicion of being blinded by this subjectivity and thus unable to come up with any useful information. Mr. Hale sums up this theory by asking,''But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?''

Female subjectivity is crucial in comprehending the story because it is the only way in which readers come to have a sense of who Minnie is. It is through the shared experiences of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters that the reader comes to understand what Minnie's life might have been like. Only when the women synthesize their observations at the crime scene with what they know about their own lives as rural housewives do they achieve a shared concept of married rural womanhood. This shared sense of identity is the basis for their shared subjectivity.

Minnie does not have to tell them that she was lonely or unhappy. They use memories of their own experiences to sympathize with her isolation and to defend her against the accusations of the law. To Sheriff Peters's attempt to sway Mrs. Hale's loyalty to her sex,''Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?" Mrs. Hale reminds him that it takes two to dirty a house and only one is expected to clean it: "Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be." The dual meaning of the phrase "clean hands" implies thathusbands are not always as free from guilt as they could be. As housewives, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters know this to be true. Perhaps their own homes have been dirtied by similarly careless hands. Mrs. Hale also understands the anxiety of housework interrupted, "Things begun—and not finished." The question of what might have interrupted Minnie's work comes to Mrs. Hale's mind after placing herself in Minnie's shoes. A housewife would not leave her work undone if not for some disturbance. This insight points Mrs. Hale in the direction of a motive.

Critic Linda Ben-Zvi notes that the author conveys the constricting sense of a woman's isolation with the symbolism of the exploded preserves jars. A summer's worth of canning suddenly destroyed represents a form of outburst; it is a suggestion that something may have erupted. Ben-Zvi reads the cracked jars as a symbol for a break in Minnie's composure. That "preserves explode from lack of heat'' is an indicator that any violent...

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Reading about Reading. 'A Jury of Her Peers,' 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,' and 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

(Short Stories for Students)

As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which American texts are self-reflexive. Our "classics" are filled with scenes of readers and readings. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a climactic moment occurs when Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale's shirt and finally reads the text he has for so long been trying to locate. What he sees we never learn, but for him his "reading" is complete and satisfying. Or, to take another example, in "Daisy Miller," Winterbourne's misreading of Daisy provides the central drama of the text Indeed, for James, reading is the dominant metaphor for life, and his art is designed to teach us how to read well so that we may live somewhere other than Geneva. Yet even a writer as different from James as Mark Twain must learn to read his river if he wants to become a master pilot. And, of course, in Moby Dick, Melville gives us a brilliant instance of reader-response theory in action in the doubloon scene.

When I first read Susan Glaspell's ''A Jury of Her Peers" in Mary Anne Ferguson's Images of Women in Literature I found it very American, for it, too, is a story about reading. The story interested me particularly, however, because the theory of reading proposed in it is explicitly linked to the issue of gender. "A Jury of Her Peers" tells of a woman who has killed her husband; the men on the case can not solve the mystery of the murder; the women who accompany them can. The reason for this striking display of masculine incompetence in an arena where men are assumed to be competent derives from the fact that the men in question can not imagine the story behind the case. They enter the situation bound by a set of powerful assumptions. Prime among these is the equation of textuality with masculine subject and masculine point of view. Thus, it is not simply that the men can not read the text that is placed before them. Rather, they literally can not recognize it as a text because they can not imagine that women have stories. This preconception is so powerful that, even though, in effect, they know Minnie Whght has killed her husband, they spend their time trying to discover their own story, the story they are familiar with, can recognize as a text, and know how to read. They go out to the barn; they check for evidence of violent entry from the outside; they think about guns. In their story, men, not women, are violent, and men use guns: "There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand." Though Mrs. Hale thinks the men are "kind of sneaking ... coming out here to get her own house to turn against her," in fact she needn't worry, for these men wouldn't know a clue if they came upon it. Minnie Foster Wright's kitchen is not a text to them, and so they can not read it.

It is no doubt in part to escape the charge of "sneaking" that the men have brought the women with them in the first place, the presence of women legitimating male entry and clearing it of any hint of violence or violation. But Mrs. Hale recognizes the element of violence in the situation from the outset. In Sheriff Peters, she sees the law made flesh. ''A heavy man with a big voice" who delights in distinguishing between criminals and noncrimmals, his casual misogyny—"not much of a housekeeper"—indicates his predisposition to find women guilty. Mrs. Hale rejects the sheriff's invitation to join him in his definition and interpretation of Minnie Wright, to become in effect a male reader, and asserts instead her intention to read as a woman. Fortunately, perhaps, for Minnie, the idea of the woman reader as anything other than an adjunct validator of male texts and male interpretations ("a sheriff's wife is married to the law") is as incomprehensible to these men as is the idea of a woman's story. With a parting shot at the incompetence of women as readers—"But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?"—the men leave the women alone with their "trifles.''

Martha Hale has no trouble recognizing that she is faced with a text written by the woman whose presence she feels, despite her physical absence. She has no trouble recognizing Minnie Wright as an author whose work she is competent to read. Significantly enough, identification determines her competence. Capable of imagining herself as a writer who can produce a significant text, she is also capable of interpreting what she finds in Minnie Wright's kitchen. As she leaves her own house, Martha Hale makes "a scandalized sweep of her kitchen," and "what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving." When she arrives at Minnie Wright's house and finds her kitchen m a similar state, she is prepared to look for something out of the ordinary to explain it—that is, she is in a position to discover the motive and the clue which the men miss. Identification also provides the key element in determining how Mrs. Peters reads. From the start, Martha Hale has been sizing up Mrs. Peters. Working from her perception that Mrs. Peters ''didn't seem like a sheriff's wife,'' Martha subtly encourages her to read as a woman. But Mrs. Peters, more timid than Mrs. Hale and indeed married to the law, wavers in her allegiance: '"ButMrs. Hale,' said the sheriff's wife, 'thelawis the law'." In a comment that ought to be as deeply embedded in our national folklore as are its masculimst counterparts—for example, "a woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke"— Mrs. Hale draws on Mrs. Peters's potential for identification with Minnie Wright: "The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove. How'd you like to cook on this?'' At the crucial moment, when both motive and clue for the murder have been discovered and the fate of Minnie Wright rests in her hands, Mrs. Peters remembers her own potential for violence, its cause and its justification: "'When I was a girl,' said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, 'my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—before I could get there—' She covered her face an instant. 'If they hadn't held me back I would have'—she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly— 'hurt him'."

At the end of the story, Martha Hale articulates the theory of reading behind ''A Jury of Her Peers". "We all go through the same things—it's all just a different Mnd of the same thing! If it weren't—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?" Women can read women's texts because they live women's lives; men can not read women's texts because they don't lead women's lives. Yet, of course, the issues are more complicated than this formulation, however true it may be. A clue to our interpretation of Glaspell's text occurs m a passage dealing with Mrs. Peters's struggle to determine how she will read: "It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself. 'I know what stillness is,' she said, in a queer, monotonous voice.'' Obviously, nothing less than Mrs. Peters's concept of self is at stake in her decision. The self she does not recognize as "herself1 ' is the self...

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Small Things Reconsidered Susan Glaspell's 'A Jury of Her Peers'

(Short Stories for Students)

Susan GlaspelFs "A Jury of her Peers" is by nowa small feminist classic. Published in 1917, rediscovered in the early 1970s and increasingly reprinted since then in anthologies and textbooks, it has become for both readers and critics a familiar and frequently revisited landmark on our "map of rereading." For Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond in 1973 it introduced us to the work of one of the important but forgotten women writers who were then being rediscovered; and its characters,' 'prairie matrons, bound by poverty and limited experience [who] right heroic battles on tiny battlefields," provided examples of those ordinary or anonymous women whose voices were also being sought and reclaimed. For Mary Anne Ferguson, also in 1973,...

(The entire section is 4618 words.)